Sheriff threatens to stop taking calls from public library over its support for Black Lives Matter

“A Nevada sheriff told a local library system not to bother calling 911 after it expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement,” CNN reported on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. “That message came from Douglas County Sheriff Dan Coverley … a day before the county’s public library system was set to discuss a proposed diversity statement that mentions they ‘support #BlackLivesMatter.'” Read story here.

The sheriff’s letter is dated July 27, 2020; you can read it here. It apparently was a response to the agenda of a library board meeting scheduled for July 28, 2020, which you can read here. One of the agenda items was, “6. For possible action. Discussion of possible Diversity Statement.”

The proposed diversity statement attached to the agenda states,

“The Douglas County Public Library denounces all acts of violence, racism, and disregard for human rights. We support #Black Lives Matter. We resolutely assert and believe that all forms of racism, hatred, inequality, and injustice don’t belong in our society.”

Sheriff Coverley objected to the inclusion of “We support #Black Lives Matter,” which his letter describes as a “movement [that] openly calls all law enforcement corrupt and racist on their website.” I haven’t read BLM’s website, so I can’t say whether this is accurate. The letter also says, “Numerous Black Lives Matters protests have resulted in violence, property damage, and the closing of local businesses.” While that’s true, he continues, “To support this movement is to support violence and to openly ask for it to happen in Douglas County,” which is problematical. For one thing, the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter protests aren’t the same. George Floyd’s killing sparked protests that launched a movement with broader objectives. He also failed to differentiate between peaceful and violent protesters. The vast majority of BLM protesters are peaceful, and Black Lives Matter should get credit for that.

According to Carson Now, a local news source, the board meeting was canceled and will be rescheduled, the sheriff met with the library director, and they agreed “this may have been an unfortunate … misunderstanding.” It reported the Nevada ACLU said the sheriff has “a clear lack of misunderstanding of what the Black Lives Matter movement represents,” and disputed some of the assertions in his letter. This report, which you can read here, also says without attribution,

“The refusal to respond to emergency calls based on political beliefs is in direct opposition of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states that all persons should be granted equal protection under the law.”

It’s unclear whether that’s the reporter’s comment, and I can’t say how a court might rule in this particular case, but in general legal terms that’s a reasonable argument. That aside, I think the sheriff misunderstands the BLM movement, and also the library board’s intent in supporting it.

Or he could be grandstanding; sheriffs are elected officials, therefore political creatures, and play to voters. But I don’t think that’s going on here; the indignation expressed in his letter isn’t an act put on for show. It’s plainly real.

Wikipedia says, “While Black Lives Matter can primarily be understood as a decentralized social movement, an organization known simply as Black Lives Matter exists … with about 16 chapters in the United States and Canada. The broader movement and its related organizations typically advocate against police violence towards black people, as well as for various other policy changes considered to be related to black liberation.” (Emphasis added.) You can read the Wikipedia article about Black Lives Matter here.

I highlighted the italicized phrase to point out that the movement and the organization are two different things. They’re connected, but the movement is the horse and the organization the cart, not the other way around. The protests are mostly spontaneous, and the organization doesn’t necessarily control them.

It’s unclear to me whether the library’s proposed diversity statement refers to the movement or the organization, but most likely the intent of its advocates is to support the general aims of the movement described by Wikipedia. 

The sheriff isn’t wrong in thinking the BLM movement and organization are taking aim at racism in policing. If he continues to deny it exists, then he and BLM protesters are going to sharply disagree.  But we disagree often in this country, and that’s not a good reason to deny someone police services, even taking into account the sensitivities of the law enforcement community on this issue.

Of course, I oppose the rioting, property destructive, assaults on police, and acts of violence that have occurred in some of these protests. No one should want that, and least of all peaceful protesters with a legitimate message, because it delegitimizes them. But while there’s been violence, I don’t believe the BLM movement sanctions it. Some protesters have tried to stop acts of violence.

There is evidence some of it has been committed by provocateurs, including white supremacists seeking to discredit the protests and movement. There has been violence against protesters, too. It’s unfair to tar the BLM movement and its legitimate goals for the actions of bad actors who don’t represent the movement and may be actively trying to sabotage it. I think Sheriff Coverley hasn’t been careful enough about this.

These are tense times. Those working in law enforcement feel under siege and some officers have been injured in the protests. Under these circumstances, it’s difficult for people in law enforcement to look at BLM objectively. But it’s clear we still have a racism problem in our country, including in some of our police agencies, and things need to change.

I’ve been arguing for some time now that we need police reform, including changes in how police officers are recruited, trained, and supervised. This isn’t just my personal opinion; federal judges imposed consent decrees on several big-city police departments mandating changes, especially in use-of-force policies.

Sheriff Coverley’s letter states,

“The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office reflects the diversity that is seen in our community, and we make it a priority to treat all persons with respect regardless of race, gender, or cultural differences.”

That’s a great statement; worthy of being framed, hung on the walls, and adopted as a motto by police agencies; and it’s a good starting point for where we go from here. Black Lives Matter is one of the paths, not the only path, to get us there.

In any mass social movement involving street protests by large crowds, there is a potential for things to get out of hand. This occurred in the 1960s antiwar protests, too. People don’t have a right to break windows, set fires, overturn cars, throw objects at police, or commit assaults. They do have a right to gather peacefully, march, speak, and demand social change. We must make that distinction if we are to remain a free society.

In protests that turn violent, it’s often a few people causing the trouble. It’s intellectually lazy to impute their actions to a peaceful  movement, which I’m pretty sure Black Lives Matter is. I have no doubt that Sheriff Coverley is well-meaning, has good values, is a decent man, and a fine law enforcement officer. But in the heat and passion of these times, he didn’t do his homework and made some invalid assumptions. Hopefully he and the library system will work this out in the best interests of their community. I don’t think they have different aspirations or goals, so that should be possible.

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  1. Mark Adams #

    Of course one might want to look at the countys demographics. “The racial makeup of the county was 91.9% White, 0.3% Black or African American, 1.7% Native American, 1.3% Asian, 0.2% Pacific Islander, 2.5% from other races, and 2.2% from two or more races. 7.4% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.” Wikipedia Douglas County, Nevada

    It is a very Republican county. It is likely the library does practice some amount of censorship, and I think that would be a bigger issue for the library than BLM, which introduces issues of censorship. Do you keep the Bible or Huckleberry Finn on the shelves if you go really deep into all forms of racism, hatred, inequality and injustice. Often authors must include much of that even when their work is in opposition to those things being in our society, also we are a free society so individuals may have those ideas, or have thought them. Or may desire to investigate them.

  2. Roger Rabbit #

    I found nothing to suggest this library censors reading materials, and this dispute isn’t about that.

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